Objects in Motion: Seeing Northwest Coast Art In A Different Light

Kaayd hllngaay skaayxan (spruce-root basket) with Wasgo (Sea Wolf) imagery, c. 1890-1920; Woven by Skidegate Haida artist and painted by Neeslant, John Cross (1867 – 1939); spruce root, paint; Promised Gift, Private Collection, Montreal; Photo: MOA/Tyler Hagan

Static objects and artworks exhibited in glass cases are to be anticipated in museums, but one of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA)’s latest exhibitions, In a Different Light: Reflections on Northwest Coast Art, aims to challenge these expectations. In a Different Light is the inaugural exhibition of the new Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks and features historical belongings made by First Nations artists. To call attention to seeing these cultural belongings in a different light, the pieces are illuminated by softbox lighting to mimic the changing quality of daylight outside the gallery. The Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks was made possible by one of the most significant donations of historical Indigenous objects, supplemented by a large monetary gift. The Gallery displays over 110 cultural belongings ranging from ceremonial regalia, woven baskets, bird-shaped rattles, to carved dishes, silver bracelets, and masks in an intimate, 210-square-metre space. The display cases are unconventionally triangular and some are arranged to create a central viewing space, as well as a path around the centre for visitors to circulate at their leisure.

Many of the works on display have been kept in private collections abroad and have only just returned to their home on the Northwest Coast. Although they embody relationships that are specific to a certain location, the meanings of such objects transform according to their contexts of use. What’s more, the cultural belongings are part of histories that are constantly changing and incomplete. This begs the question, how can a museum effectively present objects as still being in motion today?

We interviewed Karen Duffek, one of the three co-curators of In a Different Light, to learn more about how the show attempts to challenge the concept of fixedness in an exhibition context, and how it aims to connect historical belongings to contemporary community members.

Duffek explains that since the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 1967 exhibition Arts of the Raven, Northwest Coast art has been placed on a pedestal and admired as art that is isolated from its ethnology or culture. “To remove it, to create a rupture and distance between culture and object seemed to be an important step in a broader recognition of these objects as art,” says Duffek. In a Different Light refers to the main theme of the exhibition: moving away from this tendency to present indigenous art in isolation, and instead looking at historical art through the eyes of contemporary indigenous artists and community members. To some, like Dempsey Bob, an object may be admired for its artistry and craftsmanship. To others, such as Marianne Nicolson, that same object may be a marker of territory or genealogy.

“We wanted to challenge the preconceived view that might come to mind when your hear about Northwest Coast Masterworks. Can we look at it as more than a masterful piece of art? Who is defining it as a masterwork and with whose criteria? How are we looking at this thing and what does it require it to become a masterpiece? We wanted to show that these things are not all defined or limited by some sort of external notion of masterwork,” 

Beyond harboring artistic beauty, the cultural belongings exhibited in In a Different Light have historical and evidential value and therefore cannot be classified simply as “art.” They document complex social relationships and shared histories that bear the trace of their historical context while also revealing their relevance today. Through these cultural belongings, contemporary indigenous communities and artists can enter into a dialogue with their ancestors. High-quality audio and video recordings of artists and indigenous communities supplement the presentation of the objects, thereby activating them and providing context. By using indigenous voices to link the historical works in the museum to the modern day, Duffek hopes to highlight that the works remain connected to living people. “The audio brings through the contemporary voice, while the video, which shows individuals holding the objects you’re seeing in the cases, communicates the authority of indigenous people to connect physically to these things,” she says. 

Unlike the English language, many indigenous languages are verb focused, meaning objects are described in terms of their function. To deconstruct the perception of an object as a mere ‘thing,’ each display case is titled by verbs such as Transforming, Resonating, Seeing, and Indigenizing. For example, in the Indigenizing case are three different types of objects from the 1800s: a carved wooden angel from a baptismal font, a manufactured gun fully carved in Haida imagery, and two silver bracelets hammered out of American silver dollars. These objects demonstrate that despite the violent and genocidal efforts of the Canadian government to oppress and assimilate indigenous people through residential schools and other abusive projects, they resisted. “We didn’t want to speak only about colonization but indigenizing these external influences,” says Duffek. The exhibit makes clear that past artists of Northwest Coast found ways to transpose their art form onto the new materials brought by colonists, thereby demonstrating their own creativity, imagination, and endurance.

In a Different Light ultimately highlights and helps to facilitate the continued ingenuity and perseverance of indigenous communities. It allows indigenous community members to reconnect with their shared histories and rebuild their knowledge by engaging with the works of their ancestors. By connecting past and present through the words and actions of the Northwest Coast First Nations, In a Different Light allows its objects to acquire new meanings and histories and leaves us asking, what might this object yet become?


For more information on the exhibit, visit MOA’s website here.

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